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Cannabinoids function in defense against chewing herbivores in Cannabis sativa L.

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In the decades since the first cannabinoids were identified by scientists, research has focused almost exclusively on the function and capacity of cannabinoids as medicines and intoxicants for humans and other vertebrates. Very little is known about the adaptive value of cannabinoid production, though several hypotheses have been proposed including protection from ultraviolet radiation, pathogens, and herbivores.

To test the prediction that genotypes with greater concentrations of cannabinoids will have reduced herbivory, a segregating F2 population of Cannabis sativa was leveraged to conduct lab- and field-based bioassays investigating the function of cannabinoids in mediating interactions with chewing herbivores. In the field, foliar cannabinoid concentration was inversely correlated with chewing herbivore damage. On detached leaves, Trichoplusia ni larvae consumed less leaf area and grew less when feeding on leaves with greater concentrations of cannabinoids. Scanning electron and light microscopy were used to characterize variation in glandular trichome morphology. Cannabinoid-free genotypes had trichomes that appeared collapsed.

To isolate cannabinoids from confounding factors, artificial insect diet was amended with cannabinoids in a range of physiologically relevant concentrations. Larvae grew less and had lower rates of survival as cannabinoid concentration increased. These results support the hypothesis that cannabinoids function in defense against chewing herbivores.


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